From Herding Cats to Becoming Family: Principles that form the glue of staff relationships

Shaun Sass
October 9th, 2009


“Herding cats!” It's a phrase we use around the office to describe the difficult job of leading a group of people who are bent on living out their views, separately and independently. Leadership of this group can disintegrate in a heartbeat—and so it is with many staff teams. And so it is with many staff teams and relations. It doesn't have to be this way. We'd like to offer a recipe for moving from individualism toward a sense of family.

Our leadership team, consisting of a European Director and three Regional Directors, serves staff people in 25 military communities across Europe. We get to pray, strategize, philosophize, problem solve, and share our lives and families together.

So when the topic of staff relations surfaced, we sauntered across the hall to each other's offices and began a dialog about writing this together as a staff team. What resulted were separate but intertwined ideas based on our personal and shared experiences centering on three key aspects of staff relations: servant leadership, effective communication, and healthy community.

Servant Leadership

David Martin

At the San Diego Marine Corps Recruit Depot, my drill instructor (the largest, meanest man I'd ever met) had as his goal to make my life miserable. He was extremely successful. My goal was to do everything in my feeble power to please this man. I was extremely unsuccessful. However, this experience would help develop my life-long philosophy of leadership.

1. Lead by example. Great leaders always lead from the front. They don't seek credit or long for the spotlight, but they are the example to follow. I learned quickly never to ask someone to do something that I was unwilling to do. Unconditional love is learned by example. Grace and forgiveness are learned by example. Jesus led from the front, and so should we.

2. Lead by sacrifice. Few things will inspire greater loyalty and unity than sacrifice. There's no better place to practice putting the needs of others before your own than in the world of ministry. When we go to camp with kids, if we are one bed short, who sleeps on the floor? I do. If there isn't enough to go around, who goes without? I do. Few of us will ever be called to the kind of sacrifice Jesus made on the cross, but we're all called to put others first.

John Cullipher

People are much more important than programs. Too many times leaders are so focused on the mission that they forget to serve those around them who make the mission possible. Leaders do well to honor, develop, and empower their staffs by serving them. Take some time to figure out ways to encourage, reward, and highlight each person, not just the job. If we really care about the person more than the program, that person's personal and professional growth will be a high priority. A staff with this kind of emphasis will stick together and reach a new depth as people are challenged to grow, personally and professionally.

If people are recognized and encouraged to continue a pattern of growth, they'll feel equipped to do the mission with a true sense of ownership. Jesus told his followers that they wouldn't be alone— he'd continue to be with them through the Holy Spirit. Caring for the growth and empowerment of our staff builds an unshakable foundation for ministry.

Dave Sanders

I find some powerful lessons on servant leadership from movies. The incredible scene from Gladiator when the armor-clad individuals first become a fighting unit begins when Maximus calls them to follow him in a plan against the superior charioteers storming into the arena. He commands, “Come together, we live!” In a split second, they must decide whether to trust him or not. Trust is essential for a team. Those who trust form a team that, against the odds, destroys the opposition; those who fight alone, die. Servant leaders must develop trust. They must protect their people.

A leadership position also demands the responsibility to stand in the gap for other staff or volunteers. As William Wallace in Braveheart leaves the nobles squabbling about royal positioning, he turns and scathes them with, “There's a difference between you and me. You think the people exist to give you possessions. I think your possessions exist to give the people their freedom.” Many a day around our office, we claim to be strapping on the flak jacket in order to go do battle on behalf of our staff. Jesus inverted the pyramid of leadership; servant leadership takes us to the bottom point and gives us the most privileged position—one from which we can serve others and effect change on their behalf.

Also, leadership and authority are not the same. Authority is conferred; leadership is recognized. In The Last Castle, the commandant of the military prison has all of the authority to operate his prison as he sees fit. He's unscrupulous and cruel. He's not a leader, but he has all of the conferred power. Robert Redford plays a three-star general whose tactical mistake led to court martial and prison. With no rank and no power, he wins the respect of the men in the prison by instilling them with self-worth and pride. He possesses leadership, even when all authority has been stripped away. You don't have to be the senior pastor to be a leader. Servant leadership is charaterized by God's activity in your life and how you treat people. We can be servant-leaders whether we have the authority or not.

Effective Communication

David Martin

Communication can be my best friend or my worst enemy. Here are a few principles that'll bring your communication ability out from behind enemy lines, so you can connect with the people around you.

1. The art of listening. Almost all college graduates take a speech class at some point, but I've yet to meet one who's taken a class in listening. None of us likes to share our innermost feelings with someone who isn't listening. Listening takes concentration and eye contact. Listening to people makes them feel important. It conveys a sense of care and concern. To insure you're listening, communicate back what you've heard. This helps you concentrate and gives confidence to others.

2. The sense of sensitivity. If you ever met me, you probably wouldn't think I looked like the most sensitive guy in the world. You might think I'm a professional wrestler. But contrary to first impressions, I'm more sensitive than an exposed nerve. I'm not referring to my own fragility; I'm talking about an ability to perceive the feelings of others. This hasn't come easily, and I've learned a few lessons the hard way. Being sensitive means that we don't ask questions that shouldn't be asked and we don't push beyond the line of trust. It's important to be aware of people's body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions. We must always seek to understand the emotional state of those around us if we ever want to communicate effectively.

3. Clarity is king. Misunderstandings can be the bane of any team or family. Often we feel like we've communicated our message when nothing could be further from the truth. Repetition aids clarity. As you work with a team, state and restate your ideas. If your audience doesn't understand your message, then everyone has wasted valuable time.

John Cullipher

Communication that lacks honesty will tear down the spirit of a staff. When the staff has to take a second (or third) look to see if they can depend on what's been said, they'll not want to stay very long. Times get tough enough without having to question the leader's honesty. The biblical challenge is to let our yes be yes, and our no be no. When we always speak with integrity, we strengthen our staff; it's freeing being able to trust what's said within a team.

This doesn't mean that we need to fire away whenever we feel like it. Timing and delivery are also quite important. Too many times we have no idea what's going on in the lives of those around us, and we have a “ready, fire,aim” mentality. You can be right on target in what you are trying to say, but if your timing and delivery are off, it'll discount what you're trying to say.

I can't begin to count how many times I've said to myself, “I sure wish I'd said that differently.” Being misunderstood seems to come with leadership, but pausing to consider how best to say what we're about to say can save a lot of pain.

We miss so many opportunities to build or mend bridges. Paul challenges us not to let the sun go down before we make the necessary connections with others. He speaks in terms of anger, but this also applies to praise as well.

Dave Sanders

In the beginning, God walked with man and woman, and they talked and hung out. They communicated in the purest fashion—with body, soul, and spirit. Effective communication for us is an ever-present desire and need to get back to that. Within a staff team there are multiple communication styles, some open and some closed; but effective communication is far more than just speaking to each other. The ultimate communication is shared lives and experiences interpreted together. Respecting the image of God in each individual is key.

Conflict and confrontation are natural and necessary. I've learned that my style is to come at adversity from the side in order to minimize the damage. This is a strength of mine; and it's a weakness, especially when it comes to confrontation in relationships. Delay in confrontation can be a seedbed for bitterness and isolation. With isolation, relationships die. Effective communication finds healthy ways to confront, but confront it must. Communication is also a two-way street. My 15 year-old daughter and I spent an hour and a half yesterday agreeing on breaking patterns that have developed in our communication style. I don't listen because I'm crafting my argumentative response; so she shuts down; so I demand her attention through eye contact; so she glares at me with a defiant focus and clenched jaw—and so on the pattern goes. The feelings and longings and underlying issues of a 15 year-old girl are all there, but I want to be right in crafting the argument. So I'm trying to rebuild effective communication by establishing a two-way street.

Communication happens best face to face. E-mail is for information, not communication. Effective communicators will sit face to face with folks, because there are a zillion different ways we communicate with others beyond words alone.

Effective communication is the bridge between the heart of the leader and the hearts of the people. Without it, the team is stagnant and progress halts. Jesus grafted his heart to the hearts of the people by speaking in parables, preaching with power, and teaching with authority. He listened; he wept; I bet he laughed, too. Effective communication holds people together and shapes them into a team. Without it, you'll find yourself trying to herd a flock of cats.

Healthy Community

Community is the reward of hard relational work fueled by biblical principles. Healthy community is essential but so easy to avoid. Spiritually and relationally, by the time you realize that you need community, you're already in a dangerous place. As Christian leaders, we must never allow the enemy to isolate us from healthy community.

David Martin

People long for community, yet few enjoy its full potential. Healthy community means healthy relationships, which take time. Discovering the oasis of a healthy community takes work and effort most people are hesitant to give. Here are a couple of principles that have helped me build healthy community.

1. Give our lives away. This sounds a little scary at first, but the payoff is huge. Often we attempt to build community, but we aren't willing to pay the price. If it's uncomfortable, we come to a screeching halt. We need to open up our homes to others on our team, share meals together, and give our time and resources to them. We should ask hard questions when the opportunities arise, and we should answer hard questions, as well. When we give our lives away, healthy community is just around the corner.

2. Be vulnerable. Without it, intimacy is beyond our grasp. Vulnerability is the ability to open up and expose the darkness of our hearts, which prompts others to do the same. It's risky and painful. But the benefit is a healthy community of life-time friends. This level of intimate friendship is to be treasured and honored.

John Cullipher

Real community happens when the staff feels heard, cared for, and included in the greater mission of the team. A healthy family will weep and rejoice with each other. A staff that's given time for this will be empowered to care for each other. A staff that understands and owns the vision and mission of the team will be more excited about its accomplishment. When leaders establish an environment in which people are encouraged to invest in each other as a part of something bigger than themselves, good things happen for the Kingdom.

Romans 12 challenges us to weep and rejoice with others. The mission is important, but people are more important. With MCYM, we're intentional about taking time to welcome new staff arrivals, making them feel welcomed and special. We do the same for staff members who leave us. We take time to mourn and celebrate with each other, and it's common to hear our staff refer to us as a family.

A timely word of care or concern builds a great team. It not only shows we care, but also that we're watching and sensitive to what's happening within each other's lives. It also encourages the staff members to express this kind of support for those under their care.

If every team member understands his or her part of the mission, and catches the vision that what's done today will affect tomorrow, then we experience inclusion and ownership. It's not just the leader's mission; it's our mission. To feel that sense of ownership will free the family to be their best and allow them to really enjoy the ride.

Dave Sanders

What we do isn't as important as who we do it with. I'd rather dig a ditch with a team of close and trusted friends than be a powerful CEO of a corporation with no close relationships and an untrusting board of directors. In my current role, I get to do my work with my good buddies who love me, know me, and kick me in the butt when I need it. We laugh together, cry together, and fall on our knees to pray together. The people God brings into our lives are gifts to us.

but the team executes the play. Healthy community is about two things: coming together for the huddle, and breaking the huddle to go to the line and run the play together. The implied meaning behind koinonia(the Greek New Testament word to describe the early Christian community) is to come together in fellowship for a purpose. Everyone is free to discuss the idea on the table. We bat it around, disagree, reshape it, or squash it altogether. The process is open because we trust each other and pull together in the huddle. But once we decide the play, everybody breaks to execute that play. Dissension, disagreement, and lack of cooperation are death to healthy community.

Also, ministry is overflow. The more I read John 15, the more I'm convinced that ministry isn't something we do; it's an overflow of our very lives. Healthy community encourages and stimulates our connection to the Vine, and when we stay connected to the Vine, we see fruit.

In the deepest sense, family is much more than a biological unit. In fact, the closest families may have no biological connection at all. As fellow saints and priests, we're a part of the Family of God. Long ago, the Creator took people and breathed life into them. The essence of God exists in each of us. We're not about existing together or working together; we must live together. Really live…to the fullest…every day and every moment.

The journey begins with Jesus. We must recognize this first, and then we can seek to become servant leaders and effective communicators. With time, patience, and some pain, we'll discover healthy community. It's not easy, but it's possible for you and your team—and definitely worth the effort.

Shaun Sass

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.